A Warning To Those Intending
To Visit The Greek Island Of Chios
This page offers a warning. It does not suggest that you avoid the Greek island of Chios altogether. But, after reading what follows, you may wish to take precautions and be on your guard for an ill-disciplined, aggressive and apparently unaccountable local police force which made our visit very unpleasant in 1999. Worryingly, very similar things (most far worse) were still happening in Greece in 2013.
In Spring 1999 my cousin Françoise Briès Bernard and I visited Chios, spending two weeks researching the island's history notably the Massacres of Chios for a proposed TV documentary. But the trip ended in an unpleasant encounter with the island's police whose behaviour was clearly intended to humiliate us. It also embarrassed many if the islanders who were our friends.
Right: The author, Christopher Long, in Vlasto Street, Chios, beside the house owned by his great-great-great grandfather, Michael Stephanos Vlasto (1762-1849). Michael had been chief Demogeront ('elder') of Chios at the time of the Chios Massacres in 1822 and by the turn of the C21st his grand 'Genoese' house in the Vlastoudika had become a bank. A few days after this picture was taken, the same Christopher Long had become (according to the idiotic Chios police) an icon thief on an Interpol list!
Encouraged by these friends we decided not to let the matter rest there. A letter of protest (see below) and a demand for documentation was sent to the Greek ambassador in London copied to the British Foreign Office.
A year after these events the Greek government in Athens and police authorities on Chios had still not responded with the documentation requested by the British Government and had been unable to provide any communication or explanation. However, a delightful and polite apology from the entirely blameless mayor of Chios appears below.
Françoise's account of our visit to Chios in 'Voleurs d'Icones' including our final experience with the police is worth reading, not least as a warning to other visitors. Chios has little to offer the mass of 'tourists' though it delights 'visitors' who appreciate its beautiful landscapes and architecture. It also appeals to those with a love of history. But be on your guard for the local police and remember that the word xenophobia is Greek and means 'fear of foreigners'!
The following may be helpful to anyone encountering unreasonable, ill-disciplined or maverick local police while travelling abroad. Of course the police may not know and may care still less about your rights, let alone their own responsibilities. However, it may help to be aware of a few of the ground-rules:
Monday, 10 May, 1999
H. E. The Greek Ambassador
The Greek Embassy
Fax: 0171 229 722
Protest & Request for Documentation re: Incident on Chios, 1 April 1999
This is to register a formal protest and a request for documents regarding the treatment that I (a British citizen) received recently at the hands of Greek police while a visitor on the Greek island of Chios.
In the company of my elderly female cousin Mme Françoise Briès Bernard (a French citizen) I had been visiting the island of Chios for a period of about two weeks for two purposes:
1) as a journalist, to carry out historical research for a proposed TV documentary on the Massacres of Chios in 1822 (in which my family played a major role and died in large numbers), and
2) to discuss with the director of the Koraes Library my intention of donating to the library a collection of documents, portraits, valuables and memorabilia which had belonged to members of my family (Vlasto/Rodocanachi/Ralli/Argenti, etc) who had lived on the island for centuries prior to the events of 1822.
On the night of 1 April 1999 at around 9.00 p.m. we were about to leave the island and board a ferry to Piraeus with our car (a British registered Land Rover, J472 LOW, clearly marked with CIoJ 'Press' stickers). Quite suddenly a man in dark glasses and a leather jacket stepped in front of our car, shouted at us to stop, and forced his way into the back of our car, aggressively ordering us to drive around 50 metres to the police station. We asked why but he refused to tell us or to identify himself.
Despite my protests and with more threats and shouts we were then instructed to drive forward which resulted in the car driving over and crushing several kit-bags belonging to Greek servicemen waiting to board the same vessel. On the street outside the police station we were met by eight or more uniformed police who shouted conflicting orders at us and, when we asked what they wanted from us, told us they didn't understand English. Never at any point was any formal explanation given to us and always they said they couldn't understand us (though they gave us constant orders in English). I explained that I was a journalist researching a TV project but this was either ignored or not believed. Our passports were taken away and I was then ordered to unlock my car. The entire contents, (including about a dozen bags, bedding, professional equipment, clothes, etc.) were then pulled out onto a dirty street in front of a growing crowd of spectators. By now there were so many police minutely searching all our personal possessions that we were unable to observe and monitor the way the search was conducted.
Meanwhile we were subjected to a barrage of bizarre questions from several policemen all at once: e.g. why I had a 'baby-sitter' with me (presumably a reference to my cousin) and where my children were (when I said I didn't have any they refused to believe me, demanding to know why not). The atmosphere and the behaviour of the police was deliberately intended to be threatening and frightening. It was quite clear that the aim of the proceedings was to humiliate and distress us to the maximum extent, short of physical violence, in front of a crowd of spectators.
Fortunately we were able to use a mobile phone, unobserved, to call friends on the island (a Mr Zannis Choremi and his wife prominent citizens of Chios). They arrived about 10 minutes later and were appalled by what they saw. They too were then subjected to intrusive questioning which has led them to make formal protests to the Mayor of Chios, the Chief of Police in Chios and, I believe, to the government in Athens.
About three-quarters of an hour later, when nothing of any interest was found in our car we were left to retrieve our belongings scattered all over the street while a senior officer tried to induce us to sign a document written entirely in Greek. I refused, saying that I would not sign any document I could not understand. Clearly angered by this they began a renewed search of the engine and other parts of our car. By this point several of the more junior police officers seemed embarrassed and uncomfortable at the way matters were being conducted and began to disappear. It was clear that the man who had originally stopped us was the ring-leader of the entire incident and although he had no reason to detain us insisted on demanding a long list of personal details, which included the names and dates of birth of my elderly parents in Britain, before our passports were returned. I drove away and boarded the ferry to Piraeus. No apology or explanation had been offered to us. Only subsequently did we discover that we had 'lost' some items during the search process.
Recently we have heard from friends on the island (all of whom were outraged by our experience and protested) that the police have widely circulated two different 'explanations' for stopping and searching us:
1) that we had been over-heard by police informants earlier that day openly discussing our thefts of icons from churches on Chios, and
2) that the Chios police were acting on instructions from Interpol because we were on a list of known international criminals.
Furthermore, we have heard that several of our friends on the island (including the distinguished historian Thomas Karamuslis, the architect Maria Xida and others) were all interviewed by the police in subsequent days in an attempt to get them to provide some justifiable evidence against us. Needless to say, these people were outraged and have, I understand, registered formal protests which resulted in some coverage of this matter in the Greek national press.
Since my return to the UK I have discovered other examples of similar treatment of bona fide visitors to Chios. I am not over-sensitive to such incidents: my work as a war correspondent over the past 10 years has often involved encountering police and military check-points many times a day. However, nothing I have yet experienced in a war zone has ever been as deliberately intimidating, humiliating and aggressive as this experience on Chios.
Since the treatment we received from police in Chios did not in any respect conform even to minimum recognised European standards and since our human rights were infringed, I would ask you to provide me, as soon as possible, with a copy of the reports into the incident which have, I believe, been prepared by the authorities in Chios and Athens.
Additionally I would like to know more about the Greek police allegations regarding Interpol's involvement. You will appreciate that such widespread and defamatory allegations by the Greek police (that we were 'known criminals') have serious implications concerning which we are taking further advice.
I have to say that in the light of our experience, as well as those of other non-Greek visitors to Chios, we would strongly advise against anyone visiting this island until police attitudes and procedures have radically improved.
c.c. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, London SW1.
Subject: Mayor of Chios
Date: 07-10-99 6:06am
Received: 07-10-99 20:36pm
To: Editor @ JTN, CALong@dircon.co.uk
To Mr Christopher A. Long Vlastos
A friend of mine, Mr Stefanos Hatzigeorgiou, informed me about you and your polite intentions for Chios island. Actually, it's so touching to meet persons like you, who nevertheless live all their life abroad, and they have so many feelings for their own country. All those pages that you have written in e-mail [sic] about Vlastos family and Chios in general, impressed me so much.
Sincerely I'm very sorry for the unlucky event that happened to you during your last visit at Chios and I'd like personally to apologize to you. Waiting to welcome you in your next visit to Chios and especially in my office, I remain,
Sincerely yours, Petros Pantelaras, Mayor of Chios
© (1999) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated.
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What had happened fourteen years later?
In 1999 the Greek embassy in London replied promptly, promising an early investigation into the incident described in this article (left).
The British government said they too were expecting a response from the Greek government.
Sadly, almost fourteen years later, the Greek reply had still not arrived!
More seriously, the behaviour of the Greek police did not seem to have improved very much in fourteen years either.
I am grateful to Steven Bushnell of California for alerting me to accounts of some very nasty experiences suffered by visitors to Greece published in this article on the BBC news magazine in January 2013.